Reporter Diane Rado seemed to think she was dishing up the latest example of a staple of Illinois journalism—thwarted reform. "When is a law not a law?" her story asked. "The answer: when there's a loophole."
A new law sponsored by state senator David Luechtefeld of Okawville requires schools in Illinois to hold a full day of classes on the first and last days of the school year, "rather than a shortened day that critics say offers little substance.
"But," the Tribune continued, "in a textbook case of legislative complications, the new law didn't get rid of some of the language in the old law that allowed for shorter days. As an unintended consequence, Illinois public schools still can conduct a half day of instruction for students at the start and end of the school year, with the remainder of the day devoted to teacher training."
And the Tribune discovered by surveying dozens of school districts throughout the state that that's what a lot of them decided to do.
That's it? I thought, when I had the gist of Rado's revelation. I'm accustomed to getting all steamed up as I read page-one stories on test scores doctored, schools closed, and programs slashed. Was I being asked to react in like fashion to the news that some schools were opening this week with an abbreviated first day of classes? And some plan the same for the last day next spring?
Rado did her best to stoke indignation. She alluded to previous Tribune stories reporting that a "muddle of laws, rules and waivers" allowed schools to trim school days for parent conferences and other activities "that can shave off crucial instruction time." She gave Luechtefeld space to recall that his own first and last days of school were "totally wasted days."
But what her story came down to is that Illinois schools are still free to schedule some shortened school days throughout the year, and some have decided the first and last days should be two of them.
What the article did not address is the possibility that this issue doesn't amount to a hill of beans. And the possibility that Luechtefeld's law is not an example of reform thwarted but an example of absurd legislative overreach, the General Assembly thinking it knows better than principals what hours of which days kids should be in the classroom.
My reaction to the Tribune story was colored, of course, by memories of my own last days. Tests had been completed, grades issued, and books returned, and the only reason to come to school at all was for the joy of collectively squirming in our seats for an hour or two and then exploding out onto the playground. Were those totally wasted days? As far as we were concerned, only until the bell rang. Luechtefeld sounds like the kid who stayed at his desk, refusing to believe there wouldn't be one more pop quiz in geography.
"I'm not the kind of a guy who is a revolutionary," Luechtefeld told Rado. "There are many people who believe we ought to go to a longer school year. This was my little attempt to make it a little bit longer."
This inane statement was reported without comment. For sure, it isn't the reporter's place to write on her own authority that a newsmaker sounds ridiculous; but it is her place to tell the newsmaker he sounds ridiculous and challenge him to explain why he isn't.